Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Sixty Years Ago: Fueled by Mantle, the 1955 Yankees Make Their Move

While the Dodgers were running away with the 1955 National League pennant, their lead at 7½ games on June 2, the New York Yankees were threatening to do the same in the American League. After being swept at home by the Indians in a two-game series on May 10 and 11, which put them four games back of Cleveland in third place with a 14-10 record, the Yankees won 19 of their next 22 games against mostly second-rate teams to put themselves up in the standings by three games over the Clevelanders. Mickey Mantle, the Yankees' emerging superstar, broke out of a two-week batting funk to fuel his team's drive into first place.

Fueled by Mantle, the 1955 Yankees Make Their Move

So far in 1955, the Yankees' season pretty much tracked with both Mickey Mantle's batting average and the quality of teams that they played. They won 7 of their first 10 games, all against teams with losing records in 1954—the Senators, Orioles, and Red Sox—in which their burgeoning young superstar center fielder hit .353. Over the next thirteen games, the Yankees had a pedestrian 7-6 record while Mantle hit only .167 with 8 hits in 48 at bats, although half of his hits were home runs. Three of his four long balls helped the Yankees to victory as they struggled to get untracked but fell behind both the Indians and White Sox. 

Against the three other American League teams that had winning records as of May 10—the Indians, White Sox, and Tigers—New York had lost four of seven. Chicago, meanwhile, had won seven of eleven against the Indians, Tigers, and Yankees and Cleveland had won seven of twelve against the White Sox, Tigers, and Yankees.

When the Yankees took the field in their home stadium on May 11 for the second of their two-game set with the Indians, they trailed Cleveland by three and Mickey Mantle's slump had diminished his batting average to .244 with six home runs and 14 RBIs through the first 23 games of the season. Early Wynn ran his record to 3-0 while handing Yankee flamethrower Bob Turley his first loss of the year against five victories, but Mantle came out his his slump in a losing cause, driving in a run with a first-inning single and tagging Wynn for a home run in the eighth. 

The Detroit Tigers, whose 15-11 record on May 11 put them in a virtual tie with the Yankees in third place, came next to Yankee Stadium. And Mickey Mantle reached deep to recover his inner superstar. Suggesting his batting slump was an anomaly, in the first game of the series the Mick went 4-for-4 with three home runs. It was the first and only time in his career Mantle hit as many as three home runs in a single game. Right-handed Detroit starter Steve Gromek was the victim for two and southpaw reliever Bob Miller for one.

The next day, the Yankees went into the bottom of the ninth trailing the Tigers, 6-4, with Detroit starter southpaw Billy Hoeft still on the mound. Down to their last out with two runners on, Mickey Mantle singled to score one, and right-hander Al Aber was brought in to face to the right-handed-batting Elston Howard, who already had one hit for the day. Howard lashed a triple to win the game, Mantle crossing the plate with the winning run.

After the Tigers left town, essentially having been eliminated from the pennant race (although they didn't know it yet), the Yankees had the privilege of playing 18 of their next 20 games against losing teams that were not expected to be remotely competitive.

Robert Creamer wrote in his 1955 forecast for the American League in Sports Illustrated's first-ever preview of a major league season that the key to which of the three most-likely contenders—the defending champion Cleveland Indians, the New York Yankees, whose bid for six championships in a row was derailed by the Indians' 111 wins in 1954, and the up-and-coming Chicago White Sox—would win the pennant was likely to come down to which team had the best record "against the other five teams." In 1954, for example, the Indians' final eight-game margin over the 103-win Yankees was more than accounted for by their 89 wins against "the weak clubs," twelve more than the Yankees managed against those same teams. The Yankees and Indians had played each other to a draw in their 22 meetings during the 1954 season.

The Yankees lost the first game in their window of scheduling-opportunity to the Athletics, but then won seven straight—one against Kansas City, both games against the visiting White Sox, and a four-game sweep of the Orioles. Mantle was instrumental in both Yankee wins against pennant-race rival Chicago: on May 17, Mantle (who also had a single) walked in the sixth inning, advanced to second on a walk to Yogi Berra, stole third, and scored the only run of the game as Yankees ace Whitey Ford (now 5-1) outdueled White Sox ace Billy Pierce (now 2-2); and the next day, with the Yankees ahead 7-6, Mantle hit a seventh-inning grand slam to break open the game.

Up by three over Cleveland after sweeping the Orioles, the Yankees lost to the Senators before winning the next three against them, then went on the road where they took three straight in Baltimore, split two in Washington, and trounced the Athletics three times in Kansas City. 

The Yankees won all four games they played against winning teams during their 19-3 stretch from May 12 to June 2—two against the Tigers and two against the White Sox—but, just as important and in a long-established Yankee tradition, beat up on losing teams. They were 4-2 against the Senators, 4-1 against the Athletics, and 7-0 against the Orioles—the teams that were sixth, seventh, and eighth all with winning percentages below .400 by the time the Yankees were through with them. They did what Creamer said they must.

Mantle got a hit in sixteen straight games beginning in the second game of the Indians series at Yankee Stadium, during which he batted nearly .500 with 26 hits in 53 at bats, boosting his average up to .341 on May 27. His .340 batting average for the month of May was his best for the 1955 season. 

Mickey Mantle ended the year with a .306 average, but got on base in 43 percent of his plate appearances, leading the league. The Mick also led the league in home runs for the first time with 37 and in triples with 11, and in slugging (.671) and on-base plus slugging percentage (1.042). His 9.5 wins above replacement was the best in all of major league baseball—better even than Willie Mays who had a 9.0 WAR and was Mantle's rival for the apple of The Big Apple's eye. Next year, Mantle would win the Triple Crown.

With 46 down and 108 games to go, the Yankees record stood at 33-13, largely the result of having beaten up on second-tier competition in the American League. The Yankees, however, still had 18 to left to play against the team that had dethroned them in 1954. They had played arch-rival Cleveland just four times in having completed nearly 30 percent of their 1955 schedule, and had lost three of those games. 

Tougher competition was just ahead, beginning the next day, June 3, with the first of four games against the 27-16 White Sox (4½ games behind in third), followed by four games against the 24-20 Tigers, followed by four games against the defending AL-champion Indians, then three more against the Tigers and four more against the White Sox.

If anyone was going to catch the Yankees, the beginning of June would be the time.

1 comment:

  1. That's the first pennant race I have any memory of, and it was a beaut. It's a fascinating mystery how the Yankees managed to pull out the close ones every single time in those years.